Bittersweet memories of a Singapore spring

In Grandmother's Bed - a poem from her debut collection, Red Lacquered Chopsticks - Betty Warrington-Kearsley details how paternal grandsons got to sleep closer to their grandmother than their sisters, who were allowed closer than maternal grandsons and granddaughters.

'It never made sense to me that it was resolutely upheld by my Chinese grandmother, who had always supported fairness,' she says. 'It offended my sense of gender equality.'

Yet the inequality the author has to deal with more often is of a racial nature. Born in Cheshire, England, in 1942, she's the daughter of an Englishman and a Singaporean-Chinese woman.

She has experienced discrimination in varying degrees in all the places she has lived, she says, even though she's comfortable being bicultural. The book's title poem identifies both 'the Anglo-Saxon who rises in the morning dressed for breakfast hankering for kedgeree, toast, marmalade and tea' and 'the Sino who slips downstairs at dawn in Shanghai silks and kimono, craving for congee'.

'Growing up in Singapore, surrounded by children of single heritage such as Chinese or Malay, I suffered daily until my father told me I have two whole cultures, not half of each,' she says. 'While the discrimination in Singapore was mainly on the basis of my being part-English, my problems in England and, to a much lesser degree, in Canada [where she now lives] were related to my being part-Chinese. But thanks to my father's words, I'm neither conflicted nor confused.'

Warrington-Kearsley left Singapore in utero during the second world war when her mother boarded the last ship to escape as Singapore fell to the Japanese. Her mother stayed with her English grandparents, awaiting her father's escape from the former colony.

'When I was four, we returned to Singapore, where my father managed a general lighterage company until he died of illness seven years later,' she says.

She remembers writing short poems, even as a young girl. 'My father encouraged me by reading me poems,' she says. 'Rudyard Kipling was one of his favourite poets then. He had a 78 record of Kipling's war poems that he often played on his HMV phonograph.'

Her teachers at St Hilda's School, where she got her primary and secondary education, further stoked her interest in poetry by organising annual recitation competitions. An avid reader, she was inspired by poets such as Omar Khayyam, Li Bai and Dylan Thomas. But her passion for poetry had to take a back seat to her education and career.

'As the eldest child, I needed to support my illiterate and later handicapped mother,' says Warrington-Kearsley, who has a brother and sister. After studying physiotherapy in Britain, she returned to Singapore, but left two years later for more permanent work back in Britain. She finally ended up in the Canadian armed forces, where she worked for 24 years before retiring in 1995.

Memories blur and become distorted with time, she says, but she kept journals for several years. The recorded events, thoughts and dreams helped to jolt her memory, but she also gleaned aspects of family history from tales her elders told her.

For several years, she revised her poems and wrote new ones, while working on her memoir. 'Then, three years ago, I took a university course in creative writing and a professor encouraged me to attempt publication.'

By the time she submitted her collection in December 2005, she had already won two important poetry prizes in Canada.

'Three of the poems had their genesis around 1957, although they've been so extensively revised that they're now unrecognisable,' she says. 'The others were written within the last five years.'

Some of the poems have a personal poignancy. 'Job's Serpent deals with the terrible ordeal of my mother's brother, who was bedridden for 30 years. Happy Birthday, on the other hand, is a meditation on my father and my pondering on what might have been.'

Warrington-Kearsley's ties to Singapore remain strong and she returns every few years to visit her sister, extended family and friends. She still looks back with fondness on her childhood. 'In the small kampung where I was brought up, the villagers knew one another,' she says. 'They never hesitated to coach me in aspects of Confucian ethics or morality they perceived to be amiss in my behaviour. So it's true, in my case, that 'it takes a village to bring up a child'.'

She says she has difficulty reconciling the romanticism of those idyllic kampung days with the bustle of modern Singapore. 'I've seen its rapid transition into a city state of changed size, shape and topography. It's an increasingly different Singapore each time I visit, and I find myself constantly looking for familiar landmarks as anchors.'

She still nurses a sense of regret over the disappearance of kelongs (offshore wooden fishing platforms) and kampungs, and the relocation of villagers into towering flats. 'But that's nostalgia,' she says. 'Singapore couldn't have continued in the old way in a changing world. Successes are achieved from the Singaporeans' determination to move away from the past.'

Red Lacquered Chopsticks by Betty Warrington-Kearsley (TSAR, HK$136)